Humility and servility are not the same thing. Former should be encouraged and the latter discouraged. In fact, humility, as per science has a range of health benefits. “Since the year 2000, more research is being done regarding humility within the overall framework of Positive Psychology,” says Dr George Kaliaden, DHA licensed psychologist of 25 years at WeCare Medical Center, Dubai.
A new study has shed fresh light on this topic - last year, two US-based researchers at the University of Charleston, Lisa Thomson Ross and Jennifer Cole Wright tested almost 400 college students and 500 adults for a link between certain personality traits and humility.
For adults, humility was associated with psychological wellbeing and for college students, being humble increased the students’ love of life and self-efficacy – the belief in our capacities and capabilities to achieve our goals. How do we define humility in science?
Humility is not self-deprecating
“Often, humility is associated with thinking less of oneself and thereby low self-esteem which may be seen in depression also,” says Dr Sreenivasan Vazhoor Ramsingh, psychiatrist at Ahalia Hospital, Abu Dhabi.
“However humility in its psychological sense doesn't mean that you have low self-esteem. It means you are more aware of yourself and your limitations within the larger context of the world and hence makes you less likely to develop anxiety or depression due to stress, and you are able to cope better in stressful situations.”
Humility in its psychological sense doesn't mean that you have low self-esteem. It means you are more aware of yourself and your limitations within the larger context of the world and hence makes you less likely to develop anxiety or depression due to stress, and you are able to cope better in stressful situations.
Although he adds that there is confusion about the exact definition of humility, he references a defining 2000 study by US-based researcher June Price Tangney published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology to define its characteristics:
- An accurate assessment of one’s abilities and achievements
- The ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations
- An openness to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice
- A keeping of one’s abilities and accomplishments– one’s place in the world –in perspective
- A relatively low self-focus, a 'forgetting of the self', while recognising that one is but one part of the larger universe
- An appreciation of the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world
Dr Sreenivasan Vazhoor Ramsingh, psychiatrist at Ahalia Hospital, Abu Dhabi, gives the example of preparing for a hard exam, explaining that with strong self-efficacy, you would know how much effort to put in, how much to study and believe in your abilities. He adds, “If I believe that I don’t have enough capacity to write an exam…all that shows is low self-efficacy because it shows a lower awareness of one’s self.”
From cosmic, to other-oriented humility
For the purpose of the study, titled ‘Humility, Personality, and Psychological Functioning’ published in the journal Psychological Reports, they defined some facets of humility that include the following.
As a small way you can test your own humility, you can ask yourself – what idea do you relate to the most?
‘I often place the interests of others over my own interests’ – Other-focused humility
‘We should always try to be in harmony with Mother Nature’ – Environmental humility.
‘I often find myself pondering my smallness in the face of the vastness of the universe’ – cosmic humility.
‘It’s important to always keep one’s accomplishments in perspective’ – valuing humility.
However, it is also defined in general humility, relational humility and intellectual humility in psychology, explains Dr Ramsingh.
Benefits of humility
From this study and others, here are some benefits of humility:
Humble people perceive their capabilities and limitations more accurately and therefore they may tend to be more responsible in producing quality work and timely task completions. They are also more mindful of their inter-dependence in the society. This makes them more empathetic. They are less likely to inconvenience others.
More life satisfaction and happiness
In college students, who had taken the Love of Life scale (2007) and the Subjective Happiness Scale (1999), all aspects of humility correlated with ‘love of life’ scores – that asks questions regarding their excitement about being alive. Certain types such as other-oriented humility and valuing humility also showed increased happiness.
“Humility implies a greater accuracy is perceiving one’s strengths and limitations and thereby maintaining the right kind of attitude about people and situations,” explains Dr Kaliaden. A 2016 study by Neal Krause published in the Journal of Adult Development also established this link between humility and life satisfaction.
May have less depression and anxiety
For college students, there was a negative correlation between depression and environmental and other-oriented humility. The study authors discuss that this may show the benefits of community service, and how ‘caring about the planet is related to slightly less depression’.
For adults, those who cared more about the environment (environmental humility), and kept their accomplishments in perspective (valuing humility) were found to be less anxious – which correlated to the previous 2016 study by Krause.
For adults, almost all aspects of humility were positively correlated with psychological wellbeing, which was tested according to Ryff’s scales of Psychological Wellbeing (1989):
- Autonomy – having self-determined thoughts.
- Environmental mastery – choosing your opportunities and contexts.
- Personal growth – improving as time passes.
- Positive relationships – trust and bonds with others.
- Sense of purpose
Better social self-efficacy
According to a 2000 study published in the Journal of Career Assessment, this is ‘an individual's confidence in her/his ability to engage in the social interactional tasks necessary to initiate and maintain interpersonal relationships’.
Dr Kaliaden explains, “Humble people perceive their capabilities and limitations more accurately and therefore they may tend to be more responsible in producing quality work and timely task completions. They are also more mindful of their inter-dependence in the society. This makes them more empathetic. They are less likely to inconvenience others.”
Increased openness and conscientiousness
“The second aspect of humility is that it makes the individual more open to people and to life’s opportunities. This naturally helps him improve his efficacy. He can make better use of the opportunities presented by his environment,” says Dr Kaliaden.
In both college students and adults, all aspects of humility positively correlated with openness.
Dr Ramsingh adds, “Humility has been shown to have various benefits including:
- Having better self-control and being more self-aware.
- Coping with stress and anxiety better
- Better work performance
- Better academic performance
- Being more helpful
- Maintaining better relationships
- Being more forgiving
- Less likely to pick up behaviours for immediate gratification including addictions.”
Dr Kaliaden has additional input from his experience: “In my over fifteen years of work as university student counselor, I have encountered several cases where students who are too arrogant and proud are less likely to take help even when they are in big trouble. Overconfidence may make them less likely to engage in systematic work and consistent efforts for task completion.
“Moreover, those who are less humble may have difficulty in social relations as they tend to be less sensitive to others’ feelings and less helpful and supportive toward their friends and colleagues.”
Tips to cultivate humility
“Humility is definitely a trait that both adults and children need to cultivate so that they can lead a happier and healthier life,” says Dr Ramsingh.
According to Dr Kaliaden, mindfulness, self-analysis to identify and be open to one’s weaknesses as well as strengths, and keeping in mind cultural practices that encourage us to acknowledge and respect others are ways to cultivate humility.
He says, “By engaging in a certain behaviour and making it a certain practice, you are also developing an attitude… how to be humble so you become more open and receptive to knowledge”
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.” – Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan, 1994
More than 30 years ago, NASA’s robotic explorer took a fuzzy picture of the Earth from 3.7 billion miles away in outer space… and what showed up was a tiny blue dot. It shocked the world, spurring various discussions and was almost a collective moment of humility for us.